Local leaders hope to pave remainder of Mountain Loop Highway

DARRINGTON — Local leaders think it’s time to pave the final 14 miles of the Mountain Loop Highway.

But upgrading the narrow dirt and gravel road between Barlow Pass and the Loop’s intersection with White Chuck Road could prove costly. It would take a “big timeline and big money,” Snohomish County public works director Steve Thomsen said.

In May, the Darrington Town Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of paving the Loop. The Granite Falls City Council passed a similar resolution Wednesday. The two communities anchor the 55-mile scenic byway.

“To me, paving that road is an absolute win-win for everyone,” Granite Falls councilman Matt Hartman said at Wednesday’s meeting.

The scenic route provides access to rugged hikes, campsites and picnic spots. In the winter, gates block access to the unpaved, unplowed portion.

A fully paved Loop could increase tourism and improve access to Darrington, according to the resolutions.

The Darrington Area Resource Advocates have been talking about it for a while, Chairman Walt Dortch said, but the idea gained momentum after the Oso mudslide in March. The slide killed 43 people and blocked Highway 530, the main route to Darrington. Even after the highway reopened in May, local businesses that rely on seasonal visitors struggled to bounce back.

State and national leaders started asking what they could do to help the Stillaguamish Valley.

Their support is key to winning funding for the Loop, Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said. The unpaved stretch is the U.S. Forest Service’s responsibility, while the county maintains the paved portions. The forest service can barely keep up with road maintenance, he said.

“We’ve been part of this conversation,” Forbes said. “But we don’t have any money to bring to the discussion.”

There have been several meetings between local and county officials, but more information is needed to determine how feasible the project is and what resources would be needed, Thomsen said.

It’s not the first attempt to pave the Loop. The Federal Highway Administration paved the road from Darrington to White Chuck Road in the 1980s. A decade later, when environmental groups opposed continuing the project, the administration couldn’t drum up enough support in Darrington or Granite Falls to finish.

A lot has changed in 20 years, said Darrington town Councilman Kevin Ashe, a local business owner and resource advocate.

“We just kind of let it fall through the cracks back then without much protest,” he recalled.

At the time, Darrington had a strong logging industry. Now, tourism and recreation are vital for the town’s economy.

“That’s hard to do if you’re not a destination place,” Ashe said. “Darrington isn’t really a destination place right now. But there’s a lot of beauty up the Loop, and people don’t realize it. Or if they do, they don’t want to drive over 14 miles of dirt road to see it.”

Dortch retired from the Forest Service and has lived on the Loop for 20 years. Driving the unpaved road was his daily commute.

A lot of infrastructure is in place, he said. Rather than building an entirely new road, the general route is laid out in dirt and gravel. Most of it just needs pavement, he said.

It’s hard to say how much that would cost, but officials agree it would take millions of dollars in federal funding.

“We are completely sensitive to the fact that money is tight, and that kind of investment needs to be well-justified in the public arena,” Dortch said. “So that’s the research we’re working really hard to do now.”

The route would need to be shifted where stretches are too narrow and crooked to pave, Thomsen said. Rivers, streams and slopes make it more complicated.

“It’s not as simple as we would just leave the road where it is and pave it,” Thomsen said. “When the SR 530 slide occurred, I … said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to pave the rest of the Mountain Loop?’ Then I realized there’s a lot more to it. It’s not a slam dunk.”

They need to find out not only what it would take to pave the highway, but how that would help communities. Essentially, would the benefits outweigh the costs?

“That really gets to the crux of the question,” Forbes said. “There’s good and bad.”

A paved surface means a safer drive and less sediment dislodged into rivers. It also means higher maintenance costs, extensive environmental studies and a much different experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

“The Forest Service isn’t going to be the proponent of this, but we’re not necessarily going to oppose it, either,” Forbes said.

Traffic on the unpaved road varies by year and season. Between August and October of 2012, an average of 125 cars used the road each day. Past snapshots have recorded more than 200 cars per day in the summer, Forbes said.

Dortch and Ashe think paving the Loop could multiply those numbers, bringing much-needed customers to local businesses.

It’s possible the Loop could be paved in segments, Thomsen said, starting with the four miles closest to Darrington. It would be a more affordable and manageable project.

But at this point, there are as many questions as answers regarding the proposal.

“The gateway communities of Darrington and Granite Falls seem to be in support of this,” Dortch said. “That’s the first block in the foundation we need to present a compelling case that it’s worth investing the money.”

If the project moves forward, it’s likely to face opposition. But leaders in Darrington and Granite Falls are confident the good outweighs the bad when it comes to paving those last 14 miles.

“It would be a great idea to pave it,” Thomsen said. “But if we start over at this point, I don’t know what it would take.”

Kari Bray: kbray@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3439.

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